Stories within stories

PhD is much like a story. We need to uncover it, and find compelling ways to tell it. And, just like in a story, there might be unexpected twists and turns. Read about Bernie’s PhD story…

I’ve long been convinced by the idea that stories are a great way of finding out about the world and communicating effectively, and I do love a great analogy. Putting one story in the context of another is something I massively enjoy (the old A46-and-me story, and my recent small-boy’s-bedroom one are examples of my tiny obsession).

I’ve also been exploring the idea of using narrative ethnography as a framework for my research, as again, it’s all about stories and their characters, and handily includes the researcher within it, which addresses my other obsession, which is about the place of reflexivity in research.

So it should come as little surprise that I’ve decided to use narrative as the device that hangs the whole study together. Because I’ve been reading this week about how narrative helps us to shape our identity, both as individuals and within groups. And this gave me the idea of using a story within a story within a story.

So the little story in the middle is about my transition from musician to midwife to PhD student in a business school. This addresses the issue of reflexivity, making my role in the study explicit, and exploring how as a researcher, I’ve had the opportunity to examine my own place in the wider world – belonging nowhere? Or belonging everywhere? And there’s also the issue of my midwife identity losing its credibility, as I no longer practise, and within professions like mine, being a practitioner is what gives us credibility to others in the group.

Then there’s the story of the midwifery leaders. Like me, they maintain that their identity is that of ‘midwife’ first, and ‘manager’ or ‘leader’ second (or in my case, ‘academic’). But they also face the issue of credibility, as they are not always accepted as midwives by the practitioner group. On the other hand, they feel that managers at hospital board level do not understand their midwife identity as opposed to the more widely known ‘nurse’ identity. They find themselves caught between identities, if you like.

Which leads to the third narrative, which I think I’ll call the meta-narrative – that of the midwifery profession and its ongoing struggle for identity. How it’s been subsumed into nursing, obstetrics, and general management, and how midwives continually struggle to free themselves from these other groups.

I really like this idea, and I’m going to run with it. After all, there are only 36 weeks and 1 day until submission, so I really do need to work out some sort of beautiful framework for the thesis. The thing I’m attracted to about this approach is the way it’s like throwing a pebble into water – the ripples from these stories just go on and on, but the stories in the centre are just as effective as the outer ones.

It’s interesting to me, to see how people receive narrative research, and while it seems a perfectly acceptable approach in some disciplines, I read something this morning that was quite disparaging about the use of stories. This was in a document produced by the Adam Smith Institute (hmmm) on the subject of Fair Trade: “Instead of hard evidence, Fairtrade advocates usually rely on the anecdotes of farmers happy to be part of Fairtrade – perhaps a tacit admission that statistics would be too revealing. These stories may be persuasive and emotionally appealing to the unguarded public, but they do not answer the very real questions about the effectiveness of the Fairtrade model” (Sidwell, 2008).

I find that criticism fascinating, and it takes me back to my days of the Masters in Research Methods, where we discussed the hierarchy of evidence. Stories came pretty low down the hierarchy. But recently, the NHS has been learning about the importance of stories, and in fact, there has been a move towards using patient stories to effect change in practice, which has been well received. And here’s another thing – when we read a qualitative paper, I would argue that the thing that motivates us to carry on to the end is the use of real world quotes and examples.

Of course, my thesis will be more than about (just) stories, but these narratives are a useful way to open a conversation about the interplay between individual and group identities, and to explore the future of midwifery leadership – a conversation that is overdue (please excuse the midwifery pun, it’s in my blood, obviously!) and entirely necessary. And if narratives provide a springboard for midwives’ reflections, then who am I to argue? After all, I love a good story!

And what is you PhD’s story? 🙂

Text credits: Bernie Divall

Image creditsDaveBleasdale / CC BY 2.0

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